I was born in the fall of 1991, Larry Bird’s last season in a Celtics uniform, a year in which an aging and crippled Boston team made it to the second round of the playoffs before falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The next year, Kevin McHale retired after averaging only 10.7 points, his legs and back failing him. Young star Reggie Lewis died later that summer. The team went into an extended rut, as Dino Radja, Eric Montross, Chauncey Billups, Rick Fox, and an ancient Dominique Wilkins came and went, the Celtics became permanent fixtures at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. The Boston Garden closed a few weeks after I turned 4.
Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce were drafted. Rick Pitino was hired. And then fired. The Celtics made some noise now and again with nothing to show for it. Doc Rivers was hired, but the team still struggled.
In the summer of 2007 everything changed. The Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and a pumped-up Paul Pierce was formed. Ubuntu became a thing. Doc Rivers looked like a genius. The Celtics performed the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history and won the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. For the next five seasons, the Celtics were consistently one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, home to aging superstars (the Big Three, Shaquille O’Neal) and scintillating rising talent (Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Kendrick Perkins) alike. Their brand of hard-nosed defense made matchups with the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers must-watch television.
Why go on about all of this? Because that second era has decidedly ended. Doc Rivers now coaches the Los Angeles Clippers, after an ugly, ugly divorce from Danny Ainge. Ray Allen had already jumped ship to the Heat. Most painfully, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the heart and soul of these great Celtics teams, were traded to their division rivals, the Brooklyn Nets.
After a youth filled with Celtics’ losing, my Dee Brown no-look-dunk commemorative card my only source of comfort, they were suddenly great again as I entered my teens. And now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
So now the 2013-2014 Atlantic Division will undoubtedly look very, very different than it has in the past. You’ve got two teams actively looking to tank for this bananas 2014 draft class, one stuck in 8th-seed purgatory, and two of the top four teams in the East playing only a borough away from each other.
Without further ado, here is the All-Atlantic Division Team. The goal: Form a perfect starting 5 (with sixth man) out of the Atlantic teams, and create a supergroup that could go up against the other divisional teams. Here we go.
Point Guard: Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
So in the end, this is going to Deron Williams pretty easily, but only on a technicality: I can’t, in good conscience, consider Rajon Rondo when he’s likely to barely play this season. Because here’s the thing, if this was a hypothetical team, in which each division would play against one another, I don’t know if Williams would exactly be the best fit. Say what you want about Rondo’s temperament or his lack of shooting range, he is the most skilled and exciting passer in the game, taking that particular title from Steve Nash (and most likely holding onto it until Ricky Rubio comes into his own).
Deron Williams is no slouch in the passing department (7.5 assists/game to Rondo’s 11.1), but he’s definitely more of a shooter than a distributor. The one advantage that Williams has is as a 3-point shooter (38% to Rondo’s 24%). That being said, Rondo barely takes 3-pointers (10% of his total shots in ’13), a shot Williams takes 39.5% of the time.
Where Rondo is more efficient than Williams is in the paint (53.2% to 50.9%) and in mid-range shots (47.9% to 38.2%). So would I rather have Rondo, the better finisher around the rim and passer, or Deron Williams, the better overall scorer, manning the point? And we haven’t even mentioned Deron’s putrid perimeter defense.
Of course, Rondo’s injured so this is silly. Williams takes it (but it makes you wonder how he’ll mesh with the rest of the Nets’ starting lineup…).
Honorable Mention: Ray Felton (NYK), who might have a fun year in an offense more in tune with his strengths, and more minutes without Jason Kidd coming off the bench.
Shooting Guard: Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets
The weakest position for the Atlantic Division, it really comes down to Joe Johnson vs. DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is perhaps the more exciting player, as an uber-athletic awesome in-game dunker, and will probably have the better statistical year, despite being a crappy 3-point shooter (25%). And while Rudy Gay will probably mean less shots for DeRozan, at least he’s not competing with Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry.
Because yes, Johnson usually needs the ball in his hands to succeed, and we didn’t see him gel that well with Deron Williams last season. But while he may not get as many looks as he did last year, he will almost certainly get better looks. The Nets will be a nightmare to guard in crunch time scenarios this year. If you’re a defense, and you have to guard Williams, Terry, Johnson, Pierce, and Garnett (plug Brook Lopez in for Terry if they need a bigger lineup), who do you put the most pressure on? While Johnson’s numbers may not leap, he’ll end up being one of the most dangerous shooters in the Atlantic Division based on the better quality of shots he’ll have and less attention on defense.
Honorable Mention: Terrence Ross (TOR), who has DeRozan’s athleticism with an improving 3-point shot, and a permanent fixture on any NBA 2k13 team I make. Which counts for a lot in my book. A sleeper Sixth Man candidate if he gets his minutes.
Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
The New York Knick put up an insane line (28.7ppg, 6.9rpg, 44%/38%/83%) and flourished when Mike Woodson joined on as coach. Yes, he’s not the best facilitator (2.6apg to 2.7 TOpg) and no he’s not an elite defender. But he can be downright unstoppable when he has the mind to be, and will continue to get the lion’s share of offensive opportunities this season for the Knicks.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Green (BOS) is staring at a make-or-break season as the Celtics’ #1 offensive weapon, at least until Rondo’s return. Last year we saw him absolutely take over games and disappear a few days later. But he’s an elite athlete, a great defensive player, and, most importantly, healthy and confident. Could be surprising this year.
Power Forward: Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets
Reasons why I picked KG:
- Because players 1-3 all have something in common: they’re not strong defensive players. Got to have a stopper, and there is no better stopper, or on-court defensive captain, than Garnett
- Because the dude can still nail that mid-range jumper. Work of art.
- Because he can thrive off the ball. Which is good when you have Melo, Deron, and Joe Johnson hoggin’ it up.
- Because how fun will it be to have Melo and KG on the same team? All it takes is one loud fan to yell “Honey Nut Cheerios” and we might get a fistfight on a nightly basis.
- Awesomely incoherent post-game interviews which I will miss so much…
- Because, like Mike Woodson, I refuse to start Amar’e Stoudemire.
- Did I mention he’s one of the best defensive players alive?
Honorable Mention: Despite his offseason issues, Jared Sullinger (BOS) is still one of the more unique power forwards in the division, and is looking for a bounceback after last season was cut far too short by injury. All interviews and preseason chatter have shown that he and Brad Stevens should get along famously and he’ll be raring to step up.
Center: Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Sneakily the deepest and most entertaining position for the division as a whole. The Celtics have the hilarious rookie combo of Canadian Kelly “Sunshine” Olynyk and Brazilian Vitor “El Hombre Indestructible” Faverani, who, even if they don’t succeed in their first seasons on a struggling Boston team, should immediately be made the subject of a Bosom Buddies-esque webseries called “Vitor and the ‘Squatch.”
The Sixers have Spencer Hawes and will eventually have electric rookie Nerlens Noel. The Knicks have former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Chemistry staple Tyson Chandler swatting shots in the middle. The Raptors have the “soon-to-be-everyone’s-favorite-player” Jonas Valanciunas, who looked unstoppable in the preseason and is almost certainly the centerpiece of new GM Masai Ujiri’s master plan for revitalizing the franchise (Step 1: Get rid of Rudy Gay).
But the top center in the division is most likely Brook Lopez. He needs to stay healthy (a concern after the 2011-12 season) and he needs to be a better rebounder, but he’s an elite scorer, is 7-0/260, and at 25 is ready to make a leap and help the Nets get further in the playoffs. Plus, if Kevin Garnett can’t help him look better, then he’s useless.
Honorable Mention: The aforementioned Valanciunas (TOR) is primed for a breakout season, especially after lighting up the Summer League. The 6-11 Lithuanian has a monstrous frame, and is already a force down on the block and in the pick-and-roll. If he develops anything resembling a jump shot, then look out Atlantic Division.
Sixth Man: Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets
And now the Atlantic Division team’s secret weapon: one of the greatest players in NBA history off the bench, as a 4th quarter specialist and all around offensive Swiss Army knife. In crunch time, move Anthony down to the 4 (which he seems to prefer these days), Garnett to the 5, and have Pierce in at the 3. He immediately becomes the lineup’s best facilitator (just look at his stats post-Rondo injury), a strong rebounder, and uses his magic slow motion energy to hit clutch jumper after clutch jumper. Absolutely unfair.
So there you have it. Five out of the six members of the Atlantic Division Team make up the starting lineup for the Brooklyn Nets. The sixth is the star of the New York Knicks. Those two teams will almost certainly be the division’s representatives in the playoffs.
Toronto is on the cusp of a low seed in the Eastern Conference, though that entirely depends on which direction Ujiri and the Raptors’ front office decides to move in. Philadelphia and Boston, on the other hand, will be happy to occupy the 4th and 5th ranking spots, crossing their fingers come draft night.
Celtics fans like me will enjoy the little things, like Brad Stevens, Kelly Olynyk’s hair, or the odd Jeff Green dunk. The Ubuntu era has ended, transplanted south to Brooklyn, where a new in-state rivalry will dominate headlines and division rankings, and fans will cheer as Kevin Garnett pounds his head against the basket before tipoff and The Truth beckons for the Brooklyn crowd to get louder, louder.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go stand in traffic for a bit.